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Southern Arizona's Missions and Churches

By: Elena Acoba

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July 3, 2012

Trace Southern Arizona's religious history with visits to the region's Spanish missions and other significant historic churches.

About the author

Elena Acoba

Elena Acoba

Since moving to Tucson in 1988, freelance writer Elena Acoba has enjoyed traveling to the four corners of Arizona. Her favorites spots in her adopted state: the natural wonders and the rich historical sights.

Spain sought more than riches when it explored what is now Southern Arizona in the 17th and 18th centuries. It also hoped to gain religious converts.

You can see that legacy in Arizona’s Catholic mission ruins and one vibrant mission community.

Coupled with other historic churches, a fascinating Southern Arizona visit awaits – one full of history, architecture and spirituality.

Arizona’s Spanish Missions

Starting in 1691, Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino founded more than 20 missions, some of which still exist north of today’s U.S.-Mexico border.

Tumacacori National Historical Park in Tubac preserves remains of San Jose de Tumacacori, one of Kino’s first missions. See several preserved ruins at the site, including the never-completed Tumacacori church.

Learn more about the cultural influence of Spanish missionaries at the park’s museum. Attend special masses conducted on the grounds during Fiesta de Tumacacori in December and within the sanctuary during October’s Anza Days.

The park also protects Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi, another of the first missions, and San Cayetano de Calabazas. See their weathered ruins during guided tours in the winter.

Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. The “White Dove of the Desert” supports a thriving parish serving nearby residents of the Tohono O’odham nation.

The stunningly white, 1797, two-towered church is a fine example of Spanish Baroque architecture. Its interior has been restored to its original colorful 18th-century artwork and clothed statuary.

The on-site museum traces the Tucson mission’s history from its 1692 founding to the ongoing restoration. Take a tour presented daily by the Patronato San Xavier, which raises funds for the restoration.

Historic Churches in Southern Arizona

Beyond Padre Kino’s missions, Southern Arizona holds a host of historically significant churches worth visiting.

The St. Ann’s Catholic Church building in Tubac dates to the 1920s, but it’s on the foundations of a church established in the early 1760s. A museum shows historical photos, and a brochure tells of the church’s long history.

Tombstone’s first church, Sacred Heart of Jesus, was built in 1881, realizing a dream of town leaders to give worshippers a true home. Plaques around the Roman Catholic church tell its story. It’s a favorite stop along a trolley tour of the town.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, also in Tombstone, is Arizona’s oldest standing Protestant church that still fulfills its original use. Built in 1882, it has 126-year-old stain-glass windows from Belgium and the original pews from New England. Phone ahead to schedule a tour.

Several Catholic churches named for Tucson’s patron saint were established beginning as early as the 1700s before St. Augustine’s Cathedral was erected in 1897 at its present Tucson location. The 1928 Mexican Baroque façade and towers have survived many building restorations. Look for desert symbols such as saguaros and lizards. Call to arrange a tour or take in a mariachi mass.

During your Tucson visit, see a historical marker for the mid-1800s church site in a street median park that is about a block away from the current St. Augustine’s. That church’s arched portal now fronts Tucson’s Arizona Historical Society Museum.

Church Square in the Douglas historic business district has attracted tourists since Ripley’s Believe It or Not in 1930 called it the world’s only city block with a church on each corner.

The square’s First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and Grace United Methodist Church were built in the early 1900s on land the local mining company deeded to the congregations.

Every January, the religious communities conduct a joint fundraiser that affords a closer look at each of the church’s preserved buildings.

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